“You’re nothing.” ”You’re useless.” ”You’re shit.” ”Can’t you do anything right?” ’Well if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” ”You couldn’t find your ass with both hands and a flashlight. (laughter)” ”You’re too sensitive.” ”Grow some skin/a thicker skin.” ”Fat ass.”
Just a few of the loving epithets hurled at me daily. I never did grow that “thicker skin,” so I always dissolved in tears and ran out the door, if the weather was good, or up to my room to hide under the covers while the rage downstairs continued with slamming cupboard doors and curses muttered and shouted in mounting fury.
I know what it’s like to go on tiptoe, to see what the “mom weather” is like at the moment, and how to disappear quickly.
I know how to appease the rabid beast, by bringing bribes of flowers and candy and “I love you” handmade cards.
I know how to avert the armageddon, at least temporarily, by making a surprise dinner (although since I allegedly did not know how to do dishes, and this was a thing so simple that any idiot could do it and therefore I should not need to be taught, unless of course I was an idiot, dinner could be a shark tank).
I know how to have suicidal fantasies. In fact, I know how to commit suicide. I just haven’t done it. Yet.
I know how to get straight “A’s” in school in order to please her.
I know how to get a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a Doctor of Medicine degree, to please her.
I know how to run away from home, when the pain got too much: first, at age 16, to the other side of the country; and later, at age 50, to the other side of the world. Both helped for a while.
And yet: and yet….even now, when she is 86 years old and I have dragged myself out of my personal heaven in Jerusalem to help her, one word, one look, and I am that terrified child, nauseated, shaking with terror and homicidal rage.
I have touched her twice: once when I was 16 and she had seized hold of me when I was doing the dishes wrong…I grabbed her by the wrists, wrenching her clawing hands off of me and pinning her against the wall of the kitchen. She spit, struggled, kicked at me, but I held her till she went still and met my eyes. I could feel my eyes burning into hers and knew I had won that round, the first and the only. I threw myself away from her and ran out the back door, not daring to come in until after dark and my father was home.
The second time happened only a few years ago. We were sitting at the dining room table. I don’t remember what set her off, but she grabbed my forearm with her claws, and I grabbed her wrist and ripped it off my arm and threw it away from me. She continued as if nothing had happened. I desperately wanted to pound her into mush, but I swallowed my rage and pretended there was nothing wrong. Nothing at all.
Maybe I am thinking of these things, not only because of my Child Abuse series, but because the anniversary of my last failed relationship is coming up.
My psychologist, who I have known for ten years (and perhaps more importantly, has known ME for ten years) and who has seen me through a number of relationships, tells me that a healthy man would not feel right to me because I don’t know what a healthy relationship is. At first gasp that seems like a negative thing to say, doesn’t it? But really it’s quite true. I grew up with a harpy for a mother, and a father who, although I love him dearly, was quite content to step aside and let the chips fall where they might, and hand me his handkerchief afterwards to dry my tears, making excuses for my mother: she had her period, she was having a hard day, blah blah blah.
Years later when I was in my Pediatrics residency there were posters everywhere that showed a little girl curled up in a corner crying, and a caption that said, “Words can hit harder than a fist.” I remember looking at those posters, puzzled, wondering what that could mean. Words can hit harder than a fist. I actually did not understand the meaning of those words. In fact, it was not until recently, 25 years later, that the meaning dawned on me. Verbal abuse can be more damaging than physical abuse. And I realized why it has taken all these years for me to “get it”: PTSD. It was just too traumatic to let into my psyche at that time. I was not in a safe place, and I had not had the distance from my abuser that would allow me to process that statement: Words can hit harder than a fist.
I am lumping verbal and psychological abuse together for now, because I cannot parse them out. There are certainly other psychological ways of abusing children (and adults), but from where I am standing at this moment they seem all tangled up together, verbal and psychological and emotional. I plan to work on this over the next few days and see if I can untangle them, and be more clear.
I know what it is to be confused.